January 17, 2014
Lily Marcus spotted the bus coming over the rise of the hill and called to her boys to quit playing ball and get over here. As Mark and Michael loped towards her, she took the baby out of the stroller, placed him in the crook of her left arm, and with practiced hands pushed the carriage clips forward without pinching herself.
The bus stopped directly in front of Lily and she stepped back so her boys could get on first. They held on to the metal handrail and pulled themselves up, climbing onto that high first bus step while their mother fished in her purse for the bus transfers. She literally had her hands full — with the baby, the stroller, and the transfers, yet she was able to climb aboard the bus and prod the boys ahead of her so as not to delay any passengers on their account.
She took her place next to the two boys who were busy trying to stake out their invisible territory on the bus seat. Mark and Michael fussed and fidgeted and pushed elbows until their mother, now settled, with the baby on her lap and the stroller at her feet, noticed their actions and tried unsuccessfully to get their attention with her 'look'. Failing that, she grabbed the arm of the closest one, Mark, and roughly pulled him up and over her legs and scooted herself and the baby in between to settle the territorial dispute.
Lily briefly closed her eyes and drew in her breath trying not to think of the humiliation she had just endured. It caused her to be even less patient than usual. After riding two buses to her sister's house and swallowing her pride to ask for a small loan, she had being turned away.
Michael had a smudge of dirt on his cheek and she took a Kleenex from her purse, licked it and wiped the smudge not too gently off his face. Lily knew that her sons hated when she did this but she also knew that they would just squirm and not say anything. She told Michael to stop squirming and he said nothing.
The baby's stirrings were quieted by the mother's gentle patting and then the brothers started again. Don't start up the mother said.
"He won't stop looking at me," Michael said.
"He looked first," Mark smarted back.
The mother, through clenched teeth said, "If you two don't shut up and behave this instant, I'll break every bone in your bodies. I won't have you making a scene in public."
The younger of the two brothers, Mark, about six years old, the one with the mouth and the cow-lick, counted aloud as he pointed to the bones of the fingers on his left hand, one bone--two bones--three bones. He got all the way to ten bones as his older brother covered his mouth to keep the laughs from escaping when it dawned on his mother what he was doing and she gave his biceps a good pinch to show her displeasure. A good, hard, twisting pinch.
The counting stopped--the crying started. Michael, seven years old, no cowlick but a prominent widow's peak, went from a laugh to a sob in two hiccups fearing that he was to be next.
If you don't stop crying, the mother said, I'll give you what for. I'll give you something to cry about, she told them. That caused both boys to cry louder and the mother pinched them both. She pinched them on the legs. Hard and long pinches, but not twisting. "Stop it this instant. Stop creating a scene," demanded Lily Marcus, still not moving her lips and staring straight ahead.
The boys sniffled to a stop and the baby stirred and began to cry. "See what you did," said the mother. "See what you did. You just wait," she said. "You just wait til I get you home." The boys, now fearing their immediate future, sat tall and quiet until the bus came to their stop. The mother prodded them off ahead of her and followed quickly holding the baby and the stroller.
Once off the bus Lily opened the stroller and placed the baby back in and then pulled her scarf from her pocket and tied the triangular cloth under her chin and pushed off down the street neither looking at nor speaking to the two boys who trailed behind blaming each other with glances and gestures, both afraid to speak.
As she turned the corner she silently waited for the boys to catch up so she could keep her eye on them. They didn't dally. Approaching the house Michael noticed the screen door that led to their third floor apartment was propped open.
Michael ran ahead with Mark following and began to laugh and yell when he looked into the bags that held the door open. Lily quickened her pace, curious about the carryings on and when she got to the front porch pulled the stroller backwards up the stairs, bump by bump on its rear wheels not bothering to take the baby out first.
She turned to see four large bags stocked full of groceries and then noticed a note stuck on the door. The boys were too busy examining the bags to notice her trembling hands and tightened face muscles as she read the note. There was little to read.
THE SISTERHOOD. Period. THE SISTERHOOD.
She turned the note over and the other side was blank. With tears falling she crumpled the note. How dare they! How dare they!
Lily was still crying as she ordered the boys to quiet down and carry the bags upstairs and she climbed the three flights hugging the baby and leaving the stroller behind on the front porch; something she had never done before.
The shame of being deserted by a husband was bad enough. Her family wouldn't say it to her face but she knew they blamed her for the breakup. Somehow those nosy-bodies from the Synagogue Sisterhood now knew and soon everyone else would know. She wasn't starving and neither were her boys. Just a little hungry--that's all. Big deal. I can take care of my boys. If I ever find out what bigmouth told them she thought I'll . . .
The mother told the boys that she didn't need charity and she didn't want charity and she forbade them from eating any of the cookies or anything else because tomorrow, she sobbed, "this food is going right back to those goddamn nosy busy body holier-than-thou Sisterhood no-goodniks and who did they think they were giving charity to someone who didn't need it or want it or ask for it and even if she did need help they would be the last people in the world that a decent person would go to and tomorrow she was going to march right down to the synagogue and tell the SISTERHOOD no-goodniks off for once and for all and now go to your rooms without supper for fighting on the bus."
That night Mark and Michael went to sleep with bags of food in their thoughts and hunger in their bellies. Lily stayed up smoking and fuming and finally went to bed hungry herself.
In the morning when the boys came downstairs for breakfast the baby was in the highchair being fed SISTERHOOD Gerber’s and the SISTERHOOD corn flakes was set out for them.
The boys took their lunch bags when they left for school but as soon as they got out the door Michael peeked and found a Sisterhood Oreo and a Sisterhood Mallomar wrapped in wax paper along with his bologna sandwich. Mark waited until he rounded the corner before he peeked.
Lily washed and dried the breakfast dishes and put the baby down for his nap. She straightened the boys' beds and only then sat in the kitchen and had herself a cigarette and a cup of SISTERHOOD Maxwell House coffee . . . fighting back tears and cursing the SISTERHOOD with every sip.